Columbia temp worker agency paid $200,000 for hurt trash collectors

COLUMBIA, Mo. – After paying $200,000 for injuries suffered on the job in the last eight months, the temporary worker agency handling trash collection for Columbia ended its contract.

The details come in emails obtained by ABC 17 News regarding the sudden holdup of city trash and recycling pickup service. The emails show why Express Employment Professionals felt the trash collection work was too risky, and how city utility leaders struggled to find solutions to the staff shortage afterward.

Columbia Utilities’ Solid Waste division announced the “significant and unexpected staff shortage” on July 17, warning people that recycling bags left at the curb may not be picked up immediately. The city followed up on July 19 with another news release, canceling the household hazardous waste collection scheduled for last Saturday.

The emails, released to ABC 17 News on Tuesday, detail the concerns Express Employment Professionals had last week. A July 17 email from Kendra Davidson, office manager of the company, to two Solid Waste managers said that Express Pros would not send additional workers to help out with trash collection. Four workers’ compensation claims had already drained the company of nearly $200,000 in the last eight months.

“The incidents have been a few minor incidents with a few major incidents that are still going through litigation which in turn could lead to an even larger loss,” Davidson said.

On the morning of July 19, Solid Waste utility manager Steve Hunt emailed assistant utilities director David Sorrell about the situation. Express Pro’s employees collect trash and recycling on “four to five routes” for the city, he said, and the loss of those workers could totally end recycling pickup.

A few hours later, Hunt told Sorrell that he spoke to Express Pros, and learned it would be ending its supply of trash collectors. Hazardous waste collection would need to be canceled due to the staff shortage, he said, and the city needed to think of a long-term solution.

“We can’t put this off any longer,” Hunt said.

At 5:40 p.m., Davidson emailed Hunt to make it official — Express Pros would pull its supply of trash collectors because of on-the-job injuries. Another worker had been injured that day, which Davidson said “won’t come lightly, and we cannot continue to simply carry the overall loss/burden as a small business.”

Mike King, owner of Express Pros, said on Tuesday he could not comment on current or former clients.

“At Express, we constantly evaluate current and potential clients companies on safe workplace conditions, to help ensure the safety of our associates,” King said.

Utility leaders discussed the possibility of hiring a new temp agency to fill in the vacancies at solid waste. Sorrell wrote that another agency may be able to help them, but at a higher rate than Express Pros. Workers in the sewer or storm water division couldn’t help out, Sorrell said, because those services were also understaffed.

“The continual need to staff the Solid Waste Division with personnel from a temporary agency is not a sustainable way to staff the department,” Sorrel said.

The city’s contract with Express Pros is set to expire on Aug. 1. The contract, which the two parties signed in 2015 and renewed each year since, set pay rates for temporary help. Trash collectors, according to the contract, are paid $13.20 an hour, 57 cents below the minimum pay rate for a city trash collector. The contract also provides temporary help for other jobs, such as administrative assistants and custodial work.

Hunt said in an email on July 19 that the Solid Waste division had seven vacancies in the 28-person department. Hunt said along with those vacancies, one employee was out injured, another was out on vacation and another was sick at the time of the email.

Patricia Weisenfelder, spokeswoman for the utility, said some workers had been pulled this week from the recycling center to help collect bags from the curbs.

Second Ward councilman Michael Trapp said he was surprised to hear about Express Pros ending their help with the city, but not surprised to hear about workers hurt while collecting trash. Supporters of a change in city trash collection cited the growing cost of workers’ comp claims for permanent city trash collectors. The debate came to a head in 2016, when voters approved a ban of “roll carts,” or trash bins on wheels that trucks could lift and dump itself at the curb, rather than employees having to pick up the bags themselves.

Trapp said the city council could consider pay raises for trash collectors to help retain employees. That would require the city to raise utility rates for solid waste during budget discussions over the next two months. Trapp said it was important to have the conversation about the future of the trash utility.

“Is your convenience and the aesthetic of the trash bag experience worth putting someone’s life on the line?”” Trapp said.

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